Monday, June 23, 2014

Republican's Own Data Proves "Voter Fraud" is a Myth

Well, the smell (stench) of Republican campaign propaganda is once again in the air. Can specious claims of "Voter Fraud" be far behind? As if any further proof that "Voter Fraud" is a cynically constructed "Myth" is needed, the re-release by Cornell University Press of THE MYTH OF VOTER FRAUD by Lorraine C. Minnite should do the job. The author is political scientist at Barnard College of Columbia University and a senior fellow at DEMOS. Most of her data comes from the American Center for Voting Rights (ACVR), a Republican sponsored "think tank" founded in 2005, specifically to dig up evidence of voter fraud. It disbanded in frustration in 2007. That should be a real clue, in and of itself.

According to the author, the book "began as a response to a simple question from Miles Rappaport, the director of Demos, a democracy reform research and advocacy organization in NYC. When he was Connecticut Secretary of State, Rappaport found that his efforts to lower barriers to voting were routinely opposed with arguments that such reforms would only open the door to more "voter fraud." He wanted to find out how big the problem actually was, so that Demos could develop an agenda for electoral reform. So motivated, Minnite "spent a number of years engaged in painstaking research, aggregating and sifting all of the evidence that I could find." The results of her quest are spelled out in the book's chapters, but she "can short-circuit the suspense"--voter fraud is rare. It cannot compare in magnitude to the multiple problems in election administration, which present a far greater threat to the integrity of elections.

This exercise led her "to explore why these allegations are made when the facts do not support them, and why they succeed in influencing electoral rules." To answer that question, she contends, we first need to get "the best estimate" of the incidence of voter fraud, and "to know WHY the myth of voter fraud can be so successfully rejuvenated in the political culture to the point that all it takes to recall it is a wink and a nod--and maybe a little bullying." She declares unequivocally that VOTER FRAUD IS A POLITICALLY CONSTRUCTED MYTH! She begins by discussing a couple of high-profile fraud allegations as examples that have influenced the national election debate, and demonstrating "how they fall apart when we interrogate them." Voter fraud politics are so enduring "because they capitalize on general and widely held folk beliefs <urban myths> that are rooted in in facts and real historical experience, notions such as corruption in party politics and government but also stereotypes and class-and racially biased preconceptions of corruptions among groups by their marginal or minority status in U.S. history. (As a student of American political history, I am well aware that the charges being levied about African Americans, Latinos, and recent immigrants are almost verbatim those made against almost every minority ethnic group throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I also know that many of those holding such biases today are the descendants of those who were once the victims of those very same injustices. I am also aware that
such prejudices against African Americans are more deep-seated and persistent than those levied against any other ethnic group.)

An almost equal source of the author's passion was the "Alice-in-Wonderland" election of 2000, in which "the candidate with the most votes lost and the Supreme Court declared the winner." For those of you too young to have experienced that "sleight-of-hand" in person, this was the "election?" that sentenced us to eight years of George W. Bush. Interest in the "deadening minutiae of election administration, never before a subject of so much spilled ink, captured the attention of the public, the press, and academia." Interest in election law, "a subject about as sexy as patent law, has exploded and the field has suddenly earned some respectability, with academic centers, institutes, and journals all its own."  The issue of election fraud, "an obsession of reformers and muckrakers in a bygone era <read Gilded Age and Progressive Era>, returned to the fore." Concerns ranged from felons' illegally voting, to Democratic ballot count observers' eating chads, and Al Gore operatives among Florida canvassing boards double-punching Palm Beach ballots to invalidate votes for George W. Bush or Pat Buchanan." In arguing for counting overseas military absentee ballots that lacked postmarks or failed to comply with the template. the Bush team waxed patriotic: "To not do so would disenfranchise patriotic soldiers and sailors."

"Epidemics" of voter fraud  broke out all over. Especially suspect, at least to right-wing Republicans, were  nationwide Democratic registration drives, bounty programs, and transportation schemes to get the maximum number of voters to the polls. Republicans had countered with "task forces" of lawyers and volunteer poll watchers "to root out what they were convinced was fraud endemic to the Democrats' efforts and the electoral process itself." What she found in several cases is that "the Republican antifraud campaigns appeared to be directed at suppressing the minority vote and tipping the election to the Republican candidate. In Jefferson County, Arkansas, where African Americans are 40 percent of the eligible voters, a group of predominantly black voters trying cast their ballots during the state's "early voting" period were confronted by Republican poll watchers who photographed them and demanded to see ID. One even stood behind the desk in the county clerk's office and photographed voter information on the clerk's computer screen.

 In South Dakota, the minorities in question were Native Americans on federal reservations who were mobilized by the SDDP, United Sioux, and other tribal councils. About a month before the election, local election auditors in counties on or near reservations reported irregularities in voter registration and absentee balloting. The charges were directed at a single contractor hired by the SDDP, who was immediately fired.  The federal and state's attorneys, with the cooperation of the SDDP, uncovered several hundred registration and absentee voter irregularities. The Republican state's attorney found only two cases where criminal law may have been violated. He concluded that "I just don't want the suggestion out there that there is widespread fraud when we don't have any evidence of that." No matter! Right-wing pundits, including Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, and John Fund of the Wall Street Journal  jumped all over the case to arouse their readers and listeners. What happened next, Minnite declares, "reveals the power of the perception of voter fraud to justify electoral and law enforcement policies that strategically advantage one party over the other." They succeeded in "embedding a campaign strategy in the voting rights enforcement routines of the U.S. DOJ." It consisted of aggressively investigating Democrats and their allies, on the barest of evidence, to use the media to create the impression of widespread violation, and to keep those investigations open long enough to influence the 2002 elections. To give the charges even greater currency, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft proclaimed a Voting Access and Integrity Initiative that involved the creation of several "task forces," consisting of 94 assistant U.S attorneys and numerous FBI officials "to deter and detect discrimination, prevent electoral corruption, and bring violators to justice." The statewide South Dakota phone number for reporting such alleged election fraud received only one call!!  The DOJ opened only sixteen investigations in the month before the election, none of which were carried to conclusion. The entire fiasco, in the author's judgment, was reflective of "an evolving pattern of conservative thinking and political strategy: conservatives are victimized by the liberal agenda, whites suffer discrimination than blacks, and the rich unfairly get less from government than the poor." They obviously live in an alternate universe!

Ignoring obvious reality, escalating allegations of voter fraud after 2002 had a profoundly negative effect on the mechanics of voting, one that threatens to undo the progress toward real democracy that it has taken more than 200 years of dedication, courage, and struggle to achieve. It has been "the justification for the erection of much of the convoluted electoral apparatus that plagues the electoral process today." More than a century ago, during the Progressive Era, "the threat of voter fraud was the rhetorical rationale for the very invention of voter registration rules, and each of the major national efforts at election reform since then....has been seriously compromised by an organized party-based opposition warning of the dangers of voter fraud." <Always remember that it is the individual states that set voting requirements and procedures. For details see my post of November 26, 2012: "Why We Need A National Election Law.">    

Easily her two most informative and fascinating examples of fabricated voter fraud are: 1) the myth that several of the 9/11 bombers were able to become eligible voters, and 2) the saga of the abortive and surreal American Center for Voting Rights (ACVR) . The former dates from the publication, in 2004, of Stealing Elections by John Fund, a regular columnist for the Wall Street Journal, in which he charged that several of the 9/11 hijackers were registered to vote. <Considering that they planned to crash their planes well before the next election would seem to make registering to vote unnecessary in the extreme, as well as a waste of valuable prep time, since they also had to learn to fly a jumbo jet airplane, but what the heck?>  Fund's book asserts that "at least eight of the nineteen hijackers who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were actually able to register to vote in either Virginia or Florida <both states noted for their "squeaky clean" elections> while they made their deadly preparations for 9/11." Fund bases his claim solely on a December 22, 2002 interview that he conducted with Michael Chertoff, then attorney general in charge of the Justice Department Criminal Division, and we all know how well he did on that job prior to 9/11. Note that Fund writes that they "were actually able to vote," not that they did register or that they were registered. Of course, we all know that every state--even Virginia and Florida--requires that every voter be a "citizen of the U.S." Several other right-wing pundits uttered lots of variations> on the same theme, but Republican Senator "Kit" Bond of Missouri took it to the point of absurdity by claiming---on the Senate floor, no less--that a Pakistani citizen in Greensboro, North Carolina, "with links to two of the September 11 hijackers was indicted by a federal grand jury for having illegally registered to vote." When asked during  a CNN interview with Lou Dobbs on October 24, 2004, if he meant that eight of the hijackers could have registered, Fund corrected Dobbs by insisting that they did register. Fund and others extrapolated from the well-known fact that several of the hijackers had obtained driver's licenses and were therefore able to apply for voter registration under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993. Obviously, being able to apply to register to vote because you obtained a driver's license is not the same thing as being able to register, let alone able to vote. As Minnite carefully points out, Fund, Bond, and their cronies were really trying to discredit the NVRA by "talking in code." The 9/11 Commission did find that several of the hijackers ""manipulated in a fraudulent manner," made detectable false statements on their visa applications, and gave false statements to border officials in order to gain entry," and obtained driver's licenses or state ID cards in California, Florida, Maryland, and Virginia, making them, hypothetically, eligible to register at the same time. But there is no evidence that any of them actually did. To do so would, of course, subject them to closer scrutiny--the last thing in the world they wanted.Therefore, Minnite asserts that "in the absence of any affirmative evidence from state or federal law enforcement officials, it is highly unlikely that any of the hijackers was registered to vote.

Nevertheless, Fund's allegations have received wide and persistent currency among those opposed to any effort to make voting more accessible, especially to poor and minority voters. Charges based upon false or non-existent documentation have been entered into the Congressional Record, swayed lawmakers, and even persuaded Supreme Court Justices. On the evening of the 2006 Congressional elections, Fund told Fox News propagandist Glenn Beck that he still stood by his original accusation, and added that "Our registration rules have a lot of people on there who are dead, don't exist  or registered many times over." This ridiculous "folk myth," the author asserts, is an example of voter fraud politics: "the use of spurious or exaggerated voter fraud allegations to persuade the public about the need for more administrative burdens on the vote." In conducting case studies, she asks 1) who are the actors?; 2) who are the targets?; 3) what are the tactics deployed?; and 4) what are the tactics employed, and what are the factors that account for their success in maintaining barriers that "disproportionately affect certain Americans"? Voter fraud politics "is all about the behavior of partisans and their allies." While committing voter fraud is a crime, "falsely accusing someone of it is not." And therein, to quote Hamlet, lies the rub.

Even more categorical is the case of the report of the ACVR (see above) created on March 15, 2005 at the behest of Robert Ney (R-Ohio), then chairman of the U.S. House Administration Committee. During the course of its hearings, Mark F. "Thor" Hearne, founder and general counsel of ACVR testified that the Ohio NAACP had supplied cocaine to African Americans in return for their registering to vote.According to Murray Waas of the right-wing National Journal, Hearne was a quintessential Republican, who had served in the Department of Education during the Reagan administration, an attorney for the GOP during the 2000 Florida election fiasco, and a national counsel for the Bush-Cheney campaign. He reportedly founded ACVR "with encouragement from Rove and the White House." He has a long history of involvement in schemes to prevent potentially Democratic voters from exercising the franchise. Just days after the Administrative Committee hearings, an enterprising journalist reported that ACVR's address was a U.S. Post Office Box in Dallas, which it shared with a fund raising operation chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, the leader of the Bush-Cheney recount team. The same journalist also discovered that ACVR's internet domain was <>, and that its street address was supposedly 8409 Pickwick Lane 229, Dallas, 75225. That turned out to be the location of a UPS store!! Moreover, its Legislative Fund was a specious 501 (c) (4 ) organization, one of those eerie tax-exempt "social welfare" institutions. Obscured by several layers of phony shell organizations, the Fund had numerous ties to the GOP, the Bush-Cheney campaign, the National Rifle Association, and the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

The ACVR Legislative Fund released a self-commissioned report titled "Voter Fraud, Intimidation, and Suppression in the 2004 Presidential Election," which it claimed to be "the most comprehensive and authoritative review" of voter fraud during the 2004 election. Closer examination of its myriad claims, according to Minnite, "shows it to be little more than a pile of poorly scrutinized newspaper articles sensationalizing election shenanigans instigated in all but two instances by Democrats, who were accused of far more voter intimidation and suppression than Republicans. In other words, it is a piece of political propaganda produced by Republican Part operatives who veiled their work as civil rights advocacy." She includes a table summarizing the findings of the report and shows that "among the more than one hundred cited of alleged voter fraud implicating nearly 300,000 potentially fraudulent votes in the 2004 election cycle, only about 185 votes could be confirmed as possibly tainted by fraud. <For those of you without a handy, dandy calculator, that comes to .0006166 of one prevent.>

 Significantly, nearly all of these allegations involved cities with substantial black populations or in projected "swing states" for the upcoming 2006 elections. Incredibly, the report "achieved remarkable influence, promoting the idea that U.S. elections are riddled with voter fraud." in 2005 and 2006, ACVR advocated for photo IDs, earliest possible voter registration book closings, a one-week turnaround for the return of voter registration forms by volunteer groups, and more stringent list-maintaining procedures during the last months before an election. Significantly, ACVR "appeared and disappeared swiftly enough to evade the federal reporting requirements that might have revealed the true sources of its revenue."  But the "Report" itself is still out there, circulating, just like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or The Donation of Constantine.     

Of course, Minnite's impeccable credentials and exhaustive documentation still might not be enough to convince those get their political news and opinion from "Talk Radio" and Fox TV. They are so beyond the reach of rational thought that even contradictory evidence generated by the Republicans themselves intended to provide evidence of widespread voter fraud probably will not even penetrate their defenses. Nor would most of them even dare to tackle a scholarly work with more than 100 pages of charts and graphs and 43 pages of documenting "Notes."  Besides, it is a logical impossibility to prove the "non-existence" of anything.

That's all for now. Much of the book consists of the author's very insightful discussion of how and why. That is a subject for a later Post, but why not read Minnite's book yourself.


Monday, June 16, 2014

What Makes Me Think I Am "A Progressive"?

If there is a single word that has subsumed my professional and personal life, it has definitely been "progressive." As you have doubtless noticed, my blog is titled "Progressive History Professor." I belong and contribute to a plethora of "progressive" organizations, and I once factiously told an audience that one of my goals was to write a book that did not have the word "progressive" in its title. It seems, however, that there are almost  as many definitions of "progressive" as there are people who consider themselves "progressives." In fact, progress itself is a "loaded word," a paradox whose meaning is largely "in the eye of the beholder."  Even if we could all agree on a single definition, we would still have to admit that "progress" has both positive and negative consequences. Without getting into that philosophical quagmire, I think that it is high time for me to inform you--as unequivocally as possible--what I mean by "progress" and "progressive,"---at least as of the end of  June, 2014. 

During the 1970s and '80s, I was privileged to be a participant in what Daniel T. Rodgers called "the search for progressivism"--an ongoing dialogue that "helped attract more historical talent to the first two decades of the twentieth century than to any other period of modern America." The summary that best  expressed the results of our labors was provided by Rodgers himself, in a 1982 American Quarterly article titled "The Search for Progressivism": "those who called themselves progressives did not share a common creed or a string of common values, however ingeniously or vaguely defined." At most, they "drew upon three distinct clusters of ideas--three distinct social languages--to articulate their discontents and their social visions: the rhetoric of anti-monopolism, an emphasis upon social bonds and the social nature of human beings, and a language of social efficiency." After more than a decade of critiquing each other's interpretations, most of us "agreed to disagree," and moved on to investigate other historical problems.

In truth, we had come full-circle to the interpretation proffered by contemporary reformer Benjamin Parke De Witt in his 1915 The Progressive Movement: A Non-Partisan Comprehensive Discussion of Current Tendencies in American Politics. In his summation, those "tendencies" were three: 1. All special, minority, and corrupt influences in government---national, state, and city--must be removed. 2. The structure or machinery of government, which has been heretofore been admirably adapted to control by the few, be so changed and modified that it will be more difficult for the few, and easier for the many, to control. 3. The rapidly growing conviction that the functions of government are too restricted and that they must be increased and extended to relieve social and economic distress." 

Combining De Witt's contemporary definition with Rodgers' modern day analysis has provided me with a set of principles that I believe best capture the essence of today's "progressivism." First and foremost, to quote  "Fighting Bob" La Follette, "the supreme issue involving all others is the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many." He elaborated upon that conviction in 1912: If it can be shown that Wisconsin <or anywhere else> is a happier state , that its institutions are more democratic, that the opportunities of its people are more nearly equal, that social justice more nearly prevails, that human life is safer and sweeter, then I shall rest content in the feeling that the Progressive movement has been successful. Applying those goals to the entire United States in the early 21st century should be the primary task of today's " progressives."

Of almost equal importance is the conviction that government at all levels should be a positive force  "to promote the general welfare." It is clearly the "sine qua non" of all "reform" proposals, the best litmus test for distinguishing progressives from "reactionaries"--- those who want to "shrink government to a size where it can be drowned in a bathtub." Convincing so many people that "government is the problem" has been the reactionaries' most significant achievement. <Tell the government to keep its hands off our Social Security and Medicare.>The indisputable reality, as DeWitt argued in 1915, is that government does too little, not too much. Our "social security net" is the weakest among all "civilized countries"; most of our regulatory agencies have been "captured"  by the very interests they were designed to regulate. And today's reactionaries want even more of the same!

To be a progressive is to understand that it is impossible to separate taxation from  the provision of public services. If you want to cut taxes, you also have to decide which government functions should be eliminated or severely curtailed. Of course, reactionaries want to cut their taxes and do away with government programs upon which other people rely for their livelihood and well-being. As economist and philosopher J.K.Galbraith brilliantly predicted more than a half-century ago, their goal is to create  "private affluence and public poverty."

The progressive position on taxes was clearly outlined in the Sixteenth Amendment and the Revenue Act of 1913. Both were based upon two bedrock principles: the tax should be apportioned according to "the ability to pay" and "from whatever source derived." <See my The Income Tax and the Progressive Era, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985> Believe it or not, more advanced progressives, such "Fighting Bob" La Follette and the Republican Insurgents, actually advocated higher tax brackets on the wealthiest "three percent," as well as taxing income from stocks and bonds more heavily than that from wages and salaries.

It hardly needs mention that a "progressive" believes that all of the rights, responsibilities, and privileges enumerated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights should apply to every single American, regardless of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, social class, location, or age. We are well aware that much of our nation's history can be summed up in the conflict between those who have had an inclusive view of America and Americans, and those who have wanted to exclude "them" or "the other," because "they" were "unfit" to evolve into "us." My favorite summation of the meaning of American history is that of historian Darrett Rutman in The Morning of America:

In the years beyond 1789, governments drawn from but one of America's peoples --the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant and propertied--would claim that being of the people, and elected by the people they ruled for the people. One after another of America's peoples --the propertyless, laboring man, the immigrant, the Catholic, the Jew, the non-white, the impoverished--would rise to claim it was not so. < For whatever reason, Rutman failed to include "women" in his panoply of
fighters against the status quo, but I, most emphatically, put them at the top of the list.>

Like most progressives of my generation, I regarded the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1864 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as the end product of all those struggles; of the United States of America--at long last--living up to those ideals first proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. In the euphoria of those times, these achievements were quickly followed by Medicare, Medicaid, Affirmative Action, the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act, the proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Environmental Protection Act. History seemed to me to be moving in an inevitably "progressive trajectory." In his provocative Land Of Promise, Michael Lind characterizes the period from 1946 to 1975 as "The Glorious Thirty Years" and of the emergence of "The Third American Republic": an amalgam of the ideas and institutions of the New Nationalism and the New Freedom. Along with the western European democracies, the United States "experienced similar combinations of high growth and rapid expansion of mass middle classes, underpinned by high labor-union membership, middle -class welfare states, and highly regulated economies." The developing  "mixed economy" sought to "blend private enterprise with public regulation, redistribution, and in some cases public ownership." A widely shared prosperity gave the white majority " the confidence and security to examine, and begin to eliminate, the racial-caste system that had long made a mockery of their purported ideals."

But even at its zenith, the Third American Republic was being surreptiously undermined in what Lind calls "The Great Dismantling" and Paul Krugman "The Great Unraveling." Under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, Congress systematically dismantled industrial and financial systems that had operated from the New Deal through most of the 1960s. Managerial capitalism gave way to financial-market capitalism. Under lobbying by Wall Street, vertically integrated corporations were dismantled and dispersed. Former brand-name businesses became "brands," whose products were increasingly made in Asia and Latin America. Corporations sought to raise their profit margins by ending the postwar truce with organized labor and smashing unions.( By 2000, private-sector union membership declined to levels not seen since the Gilded Age.) Ironically, the influx of immigrants---skilled and unskilled, legal and undocumented--- accelerated the downward pressure on wages. A new army of "working poor" sprang up--full-time workers who could not subsist on a minimum wage that inflation turned into near starvation income. The dismantling of large corporations led to the demise of the always-inadequate employee-based benefit systems that had been devised to supplement earned benefits from Social Security, Medicare, and other government insurance programs. Corporate pension programs were either eliminated or replaced by 401 Ks and similar employee-contribution systems. Utility deregulation spawned the return of the very problems that had prompted their enactment in the first place. The drastic cutbacks in infrastructure spending resulted in the crumbling of highways, bridges, and canal systems, while traffic congestion escalated almost exponentially. Stock market "bubbles,' like the savings and loan meltdown of the 1980s and the subprime mortgage disaster of the 2000s, decimated millions. Bankruptcies, hostile takeovers, and the proliferation of conglomerates constricted the depth and breadth of our industrial and financial systems.

I have elaborated on various aspects of this onslaught in previous posts. Most of you are all-too-familiar with them, from personal experience. Sad to say, much of being "progressive" in the past four decades has involved defending the achievements that we once assumed were permanent fixtures of our way of life. "Playing defense" so much of our time has hindered our ability to build upon the accomplishments of 1945-1975. In one sense, we have become the "real conservatives":those who are seeking to "conserve" the gains of "the Glorious Thirty Years." In any case, it is hard to see what is  "conservative" about Tea Partiers, Neo-Cons, Neo-Libs, and Climate Catastrophe Deniers.
What is it that they are pretending to "conserve?  

Perhaps the best recent description of what I understand by "progressive" (or liberal as they prefer) is that of Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson in The Cause: It means standing firm on the belief of the foundational freedoms of thought, expression, and the necessity of individuals to take hold of their collective fates and shape them according to the values of liberty and equality, while being fully aware that the two must always coexist in tension with each other. Like the "guiding spirit" of those who founded the United States of America, progressives "must have courage to use your own understanding--that is the motto of  ENLIGHTENMENT    


Monday, June 9, 2014

How the Rich Stole Our Money and Made Us Think They were Doing Us a Favor

Back in the dim, distant past when the L.A Dodgers were still the pride of Brooklyn, the cry "we wuz robbed" was a frequently heard, heartfelt lament. As a fervid Yankee fan during the 1950s, I generally dismissed that complaint as "sour grapes." Now though, as David Atkins, founder of Pollux Group, makes starkly clear, the vast majority of Americans "wuz robbed" again and again during the past four decades. What is more, we continue to be "robbed" and, like the helpless urchins of Oliver Twist,  we obsequiously respond "Thank you Sir, and may I have another.?"

For the past four decades, Atkins proclaims, the Super Rich and their political lackeys have been "pushing people toward stocks, real estate, and credit cards." They have largely succeeded in convincing the majority of Americans that the real key to their prosperity lies not in improving salaries and wages, but in dabbling in the Big Casino where the House always wins--at the gambler's expense--: stocks, credit cards, and using the highly inflated value of their homes as collateral for more borrowing. These "passive assets" grew almost exponentially over the past forty years, while "earned income" (wages and salaries) stagnated, even though worker productivity continued to increase at a record pace. Unfortunately for most Americans, almost fifty percent of these passive assets are owned by the top one percent of income receivers, while more than 85% are possessed by the top ten percent.

So why isn't the majority in open revolt?  Part of the answer, Atkins proclaims, is because "the top 1% have done an excellent job disguising the upward transfer of wealth by making the rest of us feel better off than we actually are while enriching themselves in the process." He is quick to point out that "the trend toward greater hoarding of wealth by economic elites and shrinking middle-class is not limited to the U.S."; that it is "present to one degree or another throughout the industrialized world." The current inequality crisis, he asserts, is one part "the self-interested preferences and self-serving ideology of the super-rich," and one part "a series of decisions made in response to the inflation shocks of the 1970s and to the growing threat of globalization and workforce mechanization."

Atkins lists at least four diabolical plots to actuate this ultra-right-wing a agenda:

1. Push people away from defined-benefit pensions and into stocks and 401(k)s.  The switch from     pensions to market-based retirement accounts not only reduced "the obligated burden on
corporate 'bottom lines'," but also helped "to goose the financial sector <which has obviously become 'the tail that wags the economic dog"> upon which the ultra-rich depend for their passive  incomes." Its share of GDP has grown exponentially and its profits now account for nearly one-third  of corporate income. Reading about the ups and downs of Wall Street has become "hot popular culture," while a growing number of people "watched breathlessly as the health of the Dow Jones  was commonly equated with the health of the overall economy." Many more ordinary Americans  "watched their meager stock portfolios rise," and so became less concerned with "the slow growth of  their regular wages."  <misdirection was no longer just the favorite device of magicians and  NFL quarterbacks>

2. Push more people into using the equity in their homes as a "cash cow." Rates of home ownership  surged in the postwar years, due largely to the GI Bill and the FHLA, leveled off during the 1970s,  and exploded from the 1980s to the mid-"Aughts." The government used all the levers of public  policy to encourage home ownership <the New American Dream>  and reduce mortgage interest  rates. The deregulation of Wall Street during the Reagan-Clinton-Bush administrations "not only  boosted the stock market but also enabled large banks to make unprecedented money off of home  loans." Wealthy landlords and asset owners became even richer while rents soared and real wages  declined. Most Americans didn't feel the pinch because rising home values made them feel "paper  rich" <good old misdirection again> Besides, home equity loans allowed them to continue to  consume goods and services at the same or higher rates. The government did its  bit through "quantitative easing" by the Federal Reserve, zero percent interest rates, and numerous homeowner incentive schemes.   

3. "Democratize" consumer debt through the use of credit cards. Their widespread use from the mid-1870s on, about the same times as Wall Street deregulation, 401(k) transitions, and "the birth pangs of the real estate boom." They served a perverse dual purpose: further enrich the same financial services companies whose success disproportionately benefits the ultra-rich; and "to disguise and soften the effects of stagnant wages.' <Ain't misdirection grand?>

4. Reduce the cost of goods through "free trade" policies. It has become increasingly obvious that agreements like NAFTA benefit wealthy stockholders, while reducing jobs in developed nations. Moreover, they reduce the price of goods made overseas, which, in turn, help again to disguise wage stagnation. <Ditto and Double Ditto>

Not only do these policies obviously directly benefit the super-rich, Atkins cogently summarizes,
"they have served to create a more purely capitalist society, hide the decline of the middle class and mitigate public discontent over stagnant wages." The vast preponderance of wealth will continue to accrue to the very top incomes, guaranteeing that assets inflate while wages stagnate. Moreover, an asset-based economy is "bubble-prone, unstable, and given to boom-bust cycles."  The economic disasters of the past half-decade have, at least, partly removed "the blindfold that has been hiding wage losses over the past half-century. Housing prices have skyrocketed, even as household debt nears record highs. Nearly one-half of Americans have absolutely no retirement savings at all, while much of the rest of the developed world "faces a pension obligation crisis. The tools policymakers have used "to distract the public from the raw deal of low wages are no longer working." The only hope, Atkins adamantly and correctly asserts, is that the current crisis will at last "usher in a new era of populist progressivism in the U.S." Perhaps the most startling revelation that Atkins demonstrates is that political party of the New Deal, Fair Deal, and the Great Society has been almost as complicit in this fiasco as have the Republicans. Himself the chairman of the Ventura, California Democratic Party, he boldly proclaims that this "new era of populist-progressivism" can only happen "if the Democratic Party can shift from reinforcing the asset-based economy toward rebuilding a sustainable model that encourages wage growth and a strong labor market."

This is the most cogent and coherent explanation for our horrible situation that I have ever read.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

Not that NRA, But the Other One

That other NRA, of course, is the National Restaurant Association,whose lobbying juggernaut is surpassed only by--you guessed it?--The National Rifle Association. Almost sixty percent of its employees are classified as "low wage," the highest percentage of any American industry. That, according to an April report of the Institute for Public Policy, entitled "Restaurant Industry Pay: Taxpayers' Double Burden. " Big corporate restaurant chains pay their employees so meagerly that more than half of the nation's front-line, fast-food workers rely on at least one public-assistance program, such as Medicaid or food stamps through Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP>). Irony does even begin to capture that abomination Not to mention, of course, that customers are expected to pony up anywhere from ten to twenty percent of the bill in "TIPS." Many "cheapskates" fail to even meet that percentage and, even when patrons do, the amount is usually divvied up among the waiter, the bus boy, the hostess, and, in many cases, "the house."

In addition, when Congress--which still functioned reasonably well in 1993--capped the tax-deductible "salaries" of corporate executives at $1,000,000, most corporations simply increased "performance- based" pay, which can be deducted from corporate income-tax filings. Over the past two years, CEOs at the NRA's twenty largest corporate affiliates were lavished with $662 million in fully deductible performance pay. If that compensation had been taxed as salary, those conglomerates would have paid the IRS an additional $232 million dollars. That increased revenue would, for instance,cover food stamp benefits--at $133 per month--for 145,000 households of fast-food workers employed by the big restaurant chains.


Which restaurant chains? I am sad to say that the list includes several of our families' favorites. For instance, Starbucks CEO received $236 million in deductible performance pay over 2012-2013. That is a tax break of $82 million for a chain that pays baristas an average of $8.79 an hour. <And Starbucks pays its employees more than do most of its competitors. 

The CEO  of Yum! Brands (Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut) received $67 million in performance pay during that same period. That's on top of the $232,622,472 in tax-deferred retirement benefits that he has been provided over the last 14 years. By way of contrast, the Tax Code only allows workers to defer up to $23,000 a year on 401k contributions. Yum! pays its workers an average of $8 a an hour, while its patrons--US--provide them with $650 million in various public assistance programs. 

The dual CEOs of Chipotles received a combined total of $82 million in non-taxable options respectively and $20 million each in vested performance stock. One of the "twins" also exercised another $42 million in options. Their combined taxpayer subsidy for 2012-2013 was $69 billion. 

The head of Dunkin' Brands (Dunkin' Donuts, Baskin-Robbins, and Togo's) cashed in more than $20 million in tax-exempt stocks in both 2012 and 2013, thus saving the company $15 million in corporate income taxes. 

"Tax-payers are losing billions of dollars, shareholders are being taken for a ride," asserts former Secretary of Labor and U. of California-Berkeley economist Robert Reich. At the same time, millions of food chain workers who put in 40 hours a week qualify for means-tested anti-poverty programs.